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2009-10 Player by Player Part 1

Since the season drew to a close last week a debate has raged as to whether or not Arsenal have shown tangible signs of improvement. I have contributed very little to the debate because the truth is I haven`t made my own mind up. I`m acutely aware of phrases that were frequently dropping into my match reports around the March period such as, "whatever happens now they`ve earned our respect." There were signs of the much coveted, intangible "mental strength" in the numerous last minute goals, proudly clearing the hurdle of Aaron Ramsey`s terrible injury to claw a last ditch victory at Stoke. The sight of the team huddle at the final whistle at the Britannia amidst the chorus of boos and jeers from the Neanderthal Stoke fans is an enduring one. Yet there remains the suspicion that Arsenal are the archetypal flat track bullies, they perform against lesser sides when the pressure is off and the focus is not exuding upon them quite as heavily, but once the distant title murmur metamorphasised into something resembling a bellow, the voices receded and the team collapsed in on itself. When faced with the likes of United, Chelsea, Barcelona and even Manchester City, the team has been soundly beaten. Then of course there are the injury problems, are they informative of the odds being stacked against us or instructive of the incompetence of our staff? The truth on all counts will inevitably lie somewhere in the middle.

But for now I will content myself with scrutiny of each individual player and how they have performed this season. Some individuals have really stepped up this season, some haven`t, most have spent a period out injured. (I recall Frank McLintock telling a story about Bertie Mee`s time as club physio, in which he would make the recuperation period from injuries as uncomfortable and demanding as possible for his players so that their desire to get fit again would increase two fold). Some have been too heavily criticised, some overly lauded others unsung. It`s been interesting if nothing else.

1.Manuel ALMUNIA- This season`s Emmanuel Eboue. Ask any supporter which position they would like to rectify first and they would all shout "goalkeeper" in eerie unison. The criticism for Almunia has of course been over the top. The oft made claim that he is the "worst keeper in the league" simply doesn`t stand up to any kind of scrutiny and makes those that make the claim sound beyond hysterical. However, there is little mitigation for Almunia I feel, the sad truth is that he has been found slightly short for the level to which we aspire. I think Almunia would be the best number 2 in the league and a more than capable "cup keeper." However, mistakes have blighted his season and I don`t remember the same amount of top class saves that I recall him making in the 2008-09 period. Errors against Birmingham, Manchester City, Manchester United, Pompey, Spurs and arguably Barcelona have hurt his reputation. Supporters keen to dislike him refuse to mention the personal problems that blighted his early season form in mitigation, but the fact is at this current time he is probably ranked 4th-6th in the legion of Premiership goalies. (He really is if you look at it objectively and absorb the numerous errors other goalkeepers make regularly, which we don`t subject to the same scrutiny). That`s not bad, but for a team with title aspirations, not really good enough. His form last season earned him a shot, but he`s come up short. 5.5

2.Abou DIABY- The never ending enigma of the Arsenal squad. The only thing you can ever rely on with Abou Diaby is his unreliability. Even when he had gotten use to his sporadic appearances due to a never ending cavalcade of injuries, he throws us a curve ball by almost doubling the playing time he has achieved in any of his other seasons as an Arsenal player. The 4-3-3 seems to have suited Diaby`s strengths. As the "second lieutenant" in this system, he has been asked to neither predominantly attack nor defend. The attacking role in the triumvirate falls to Cesc or Nasri, the defensive graveyard shift to Song and/ or Denilson. However, he has been asked to parole the defensive shift due to injury (that word will be Omni-present in this article) on many an occasion. Diaby has weighed in with seven goals and five assists in 40 appearances which points to a decent season in the final third. But nothing is cut and dried with Diaby. He began the season in fine goal scoring fettle but perhaps the nadir of his Arsenal career was reached during the 3-0 victory over Spurs. Still haunted by the surrender of a two goal lead at Upton Park, Wenger threw his jacket down in conniption as Diaby pushed on despite the Gunners nursing a three goal advantage. This seemed to be a watershed in Diaby and he hit a purple patch of form, maintaining fitness, discipline and consistency- a marriage we`d never seen before in this undoubtedly talented player. He deservedly ousted Denilson as a first choice and the highlight of his season will have been a sumptuous headed winner against Liverpool. However, his form pendulously drifted towards the indifferent once he felt he had secured his place. This makes Diaby such a frustrating player, the last few weeks have shown that he needs either the carrot or the stick to be motivated, he still has the same propensity to lapses in concentration, Almunia took much of the flack for Kevin Phillips` last ditch equaliser in March, but it was Diaby`s inability to track Benitez`s run that caused the defensive panic. Diaby is undoubtedly talented, but I`m beginning to think we should cut our losses and accept that he`ll probably never have the hunger to be a consistent player and a champion. He gets a 7 because his form has veered wildly between a 5 and a 9. 7

3.Bacary SAGNA- Negotiated the "difficult third album" phase of his Arsenal career with little fuss. He is no longer a new and shiny enough toy to be insulated from criticism from supporters. But like full backs from most successful teams, he is a steady seven out of ten presence. I don`t recall too many occasions where I felt a goal was due to an error on his part. A persistent criticism surrounds his crossing, but I find that a lazy generalisation that ignores the fact that Sagna has clocked up five assists from the right this season, compared to one last season. He has broken the 40 appearance barrier for the third consecutive season, making his that rarest of Arsenal beats- a player whose reliability of form is matched by the constancy of his physical condition. If anything, he is the anti-Diaby. Sagna has been given food for thought though as during the late winter, Eboue was preferred as our right back for home games against lesser opposition and in Champions League group games, Eboue offers greater penetration and link up play, but Sagna is young enough and conscientious enough to make those improvements. 7

4.Cesc FABREGAS- At the risk of spoiling any surprises, I`m planning a top 3 run down on player of the season next week and, guess what? Cesc will be in it somewhere so I won`t exhaust too much web space here. But Fabregas annexes something to his game every season, this season he has been the spearhead of our midfield three and has taken the goal scoring burden on consummately. One game prior to van Persie`s injury, Fabregas overtook the Dutchman`s goal haul. The numbers don`t lie for Cesc this season, 36 appearances, 19 goals, 17 assists. That`s a goal a game that comes from his gifted feet, directly or indirectly. But it`s not just Cesc the creator/ finisher that has flourished this season. Cesc has always been a bona fide winner, not just a player capable of winning games through talent, but through sheer will as well. I had muted reservations about Cesc being made captain at such an early age; but one thing you can always bank on with Cesc is that he will put the hard yards in to fill any role assigned to him. (He took the role of penalty taker when van Persie was injured, despite missing his first attempt, he honed his craft, kept stepping up and kept scoring. That`s the sort of attitude that permeates him). But in the game against Stoke, I saw Cesc the captain for the first time. When Ramsey tragically left the field with an oxygen mask, Fabregas was the one who stepped up and drove the team to victory, steering home the late penalty. When Arsenal were struggling to break down a dogged Villa side, an unfit Cesc hobbled off the bench to win the game when he could only operate on one leg. He played on against Barcelona with a broken leg. (He later confirmed he knew it was broken too). But my enduring image of Cesc this season will be in the dying throws of that Stoke match. Fabregas tripped Danny Pugh next to the Stoke touchline, as Pulis hypocritically raged just minutes after Ramsey`s leg snapped in two, Cesc jogged past with his finger to his lips and motioned for Pulis to sit down. How can you not love a player that does that for your football club? I think Cesc might just be the best player I`ve ever seen in our club colours and I saw all of Bergkamp and Henry`s respective careers play out in front of my face. 9.5

5.Thomas VERMAELEN- A quite impressive first season from the Belgian. Arsenal fans had long decried the lack of physicality in the Toure-Gallas axis and Vermaelen`s uncompromising physicality was a welcome antidote to the pervious powder puff partnership. Vermaelen has played consistently and performed well. He still has the "new and shiny" status amongst supporters and so some of his flaws are overlooked by misty eyed fans. For instance, his penchant for getting incredibly tight to his attacker cuts ice with most of the Premiership`s forward lines, but powerhouses such as Rooney and Drogba have made easy work of Vermaelen- bit I expect him to learn those lessons for next year. He certainly has the attributes to be the sort of defender that can resist clever and physical strikers. His left foot has also become a potent weapon, not just in front of opposition goal but in his ability to use the ball intelligently from defence. That he was able to build an instantaneous rapport with Gallas speaks volumes of his adaptability, as does has rapid acclimatisation to the rigours of the Premiership. Possibly one of the most pivotal moments of Arsenal`s Spring title challenge occurred the morning after the 0-0 draw at Villa Park when it was confirmed that the Verminator hadn`t broken his leg and that he was able to bravely negotiate the pain barrier for the cause. Especially pivotal in retrospect as Gallas was injured a fortnight later. The Belgian has shown signs of being a mainstay at the club and somebody who has that iron will to succeed widely thought to be missing in our current squad. A few minor flaws but few would argue Vermaelen as anything other than an unqualified success. 8

7.Tomas ROSICKY- Well he surmounted the first hurdle, one I vocally doubted he would ever leap. He wore the Arsenal shirt again, which was by no means a certainty this time last year. He of course began with a setback to his hamstring injury but one must commend him for sticking out the recovery and making it back. He was also rewarded with a new contract in December. However, it is clear Rosicky cannot manage 90 minutes any longer and that he struggles to play consecutive matches. Our injury crisis at the end of the season meant he was pretty much forced to. In truth, I don`t see much of a future for Tomas at Arsenal beyond as a squad/ impact player. Tragically he appears to be a shadow of his former dynamic self. Rosicky won fans (including me) for his fearless, direct style. He was a player who took risks, who took the game to opponents, never afraid to make a darting run with the ball or have a strike at goal. I accept limited mobility may be a mitigating explanation for why we no longer see the penalty box goals (at Craven Cottage in January 2008, the header versus Wigan in 2007), but Rosicky looks like a player struggling to find his identity now he feels he can no longer provide that all action style. Wenger has tried dropping him back into midfield, where he looked comfortable initially but doubt just seems to pervade his performances. He is still an exceptionally tidy player who rarely surrenders possession, but nowadays he appears happy to shunt the ball sideways before trotting off over the horizon into a position where he couldn`t possibly receive it again. Crucial goals against Bolton and Everton show he can still pull back the trigger when required and score crucial goals from outside the box, but he doesn`t chance his arm enough for me. 6

8.Samir NASRI- Another afflicted by the looming spectre of injury in the early part of the season having broken a leg in training. He didn`t return until October but settled back into the flow pretty quickly, establishing himself as a first choice on the right hand side of Arsenal`s three pronged attack. Since missing Arsenal`s first ten league games, Nasri has featured in all but two league matches since, despite the heavy competition for attacking places. This suggests the manager has a great deal of faith in him and I wouldn`t venture that that is misplaced. Nasri is a technically outstanding player, who uses his body very intelligently to keep the ball in tight spaces and his effort in the home match with Porto will probably rank as the club`s finest goal this season. However, I would like to see Nasri become a more daring player. At the moment, he fits too snugly into the envelope marked "tidy" when he has the ability and technique to be devastating. Nasri has five goals and five assists this season which is not enough for a player with his attributes. When filling in in Cesc`s playmaker role in the midfield three, it was notable that Nasri not only lacked the fearlessness to dart into the box and score goals, but that he rarely attempted the sort of defence splitting passes we all know he is capable of. The disappointment of being left out of France`s World Cup squad may spur him on to analyse these aspects of his game and given that he does not turn 23 until next month, time is on his side. This season Nasri has been a good player. He has the potential to be a great player. 7

9.EDUARDO da Silva- Eduardo actually started the season in good form. Lining up on the left side of the front three, the Crozilian has a real propensity to find space and create chances for his team mates- his pair of assists for Diaby against Pompey in August bears testament as did his very tidy back-heel flick to tee up Cesc at the Reebok. However, when van Persie and Bendtner were injured, Eduardo could not step up to the plate as a central striker. That position does not appear to suit him in the formation as he is not the sort of hold up player required to fulfil the role. His confidence also took a knock when Wenger panicked and told the assembled press he "definitely" planned to buy a striker in light of the injury problems. The nadir of his season was to be replaced after 55 minutes against Chelsea with Carlos Vela trusted to finish a game we were losing 2-0. Since the turn of the year, he simply has not looked the same player, he looks wracked with doubt and angst and hasn`t scored since that majestic header at Upton Park in January. One imagines a mixture of the formation and the ghosts of his injury are endemic on his play and Bendtner`s impressive return from injury consigned Eduardo to a role that aspires to be bit part. The manager rarely uses Eduardo from the bench even in games we are chasing and that is the most damning evidence of all of an underwhelming season. It`s a terrible shame given the horrific injury he suffered, but I`d be surprised to see Eduardo line up for the first game of the season. 5.5

10.William GALLAS- Gallas` Arsenal career has been nothing if not colourful, so perhaps the surprise of this season would be that Gallas caused such little controversy. He kept his counsel in the press, his bete noir Toure was sold and Gallas largely looked happy (or as happy as Gallas can look) playing next to Vermaelen with whom he created such a good understanding. Gallas has been quite excellent at the centre of defence this season, organising the back four and using his experience to the benefit his team mates. I`m struggling to recall a game where I felt Gallas was below par and I feel as the leader of the back four, Gallas has had a very positive influence on Vermaelen`s form too. Had Willy stayed fit he would very much be in the running for player of the season. But Gallas did get injured and that has probably hurt his hand in the contract negotiation so we will not see the controversial Frenchman in an Arsenal shirt again. In light of Gallas` injury the signing of Sol Campbell proved to be an even bigger masterstroke, as Sol took over the marshalling of the back four. Next season it will be interesting to see who fills Gallas` void, Campbell can`t play every week and it would be hard to imagine a new signing being transplanted straight into the team and leading it, so Vermaelen might just have to step up into that role. For now, it is proper to thank Gallas for the tremendous last season he has given us this year, but the defensive side of the team needs to be remodelled and it`s probably wise to break the back of that work this summer rather than holding onto Gallas for one more year and making the work too incremental. 8

11.Robin van PERSIE- Robin, Robin, Robin, wherefore therefore art thou Robin? One of the two great tragedies of the season was that van Persie was cut down at the threshold of his majesty. (The first great tragedy was of course another player cut down rather more savagely, more on that later). After van Persie`s collection of excellent penalty box strikes in 2008-09, Wenger`s great brain wave was to move van Persie to the central striker role of his team. But it`s not just van Persie`s finishing and ability in tight spaces that make him suited to the role, but his hold up play has always been better than it has been credited for. Despite his goal ratio (9 goals in 14 appearances isn`t too shabby) my enduring image of van Persie this season was one of his final contributions before injury. The beautiful counter attack goal at the Molineux finished off by Cesc, Sagna whipped a ball into the area and van Persie, with his back to goal, craftily touched it into the path of Cesc for the goal. It said everything about van Persie, the technique and awareness have been present in abundance since his first season, but a 22 year old van Persie would have turned and tried to shoot. The streak of altruism he has added to his game in the last 18 months have seen him deservedly awarded the role of vice captain. His first goal of the season at Eastlands, a delicious turn and shot in the tiniest pocket of space was the moment of inspiration in which the penny dropped and van Persie became the supreme central striker. What a terrible shame than that injury again blighted him. Questions are asked about RvP`s injury record, but I fail to see how one can account for twisting your ankle in a heavy duty tackle. Just as we were beginning to seriously debate who is the most influential between Drogba, Rooney, Torres and van Persie he was chopped down in a meaningless international friendly. It`s hard not to be sore about that and it`s hard not to wonder how the title race might have ended had Drogba collapsed to the floor in genuine agony for once in a friendly in November, whilst van Persie enjoyed untroubled fitness. 8.5

Part 2 to follow.LD.





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The Journalist

Writer: Tim Stillman Mail feedback, articles or suggestions

Date:Friday May 14 2010

Time: 9:37AM

Your Comments

Brilliant stuff Tim, thank you. I personally would have marked Vermaelen higher, and would take a point off Diaby for his attempted ' clearance ' at Old Trafford. Looking forward to parts 2 & 3, cheers.
Cockney Rich
Good individual appraisal of the players. Pretty well on the money in every case for me.
Amos.
Hero of the people
Chipo
Hi there, I really wouldn't say Alumunia is 4th to 6th in terms of prem goalkeepers at all. Infact off the top of my head i cant think of many prem number ones worse than him, ok Brian Jensen theres one. Saying that im sure hed get a 6 though if he was a gooner on this site lol. As Fat Sam says the stats say Paul Robinson is a great keeper, but we all know hes not. Hes failed you bigtime and its always at the most crucial moments.
HuddersfieldYiddo
Nice article. Nothing typified the kind of fight and spirit Vermaelen has brought to this squad for me than his goal against Blackburn at home. Blackburn had gone a goal up thanks to N'Zonzi when he outsmarted Vermaelen and Gallas. The way TV5 took responsibility, drove forward and slammed a 20 yard rocket past Robinson in the 16th minute was awesome. That is the spirit we need.
Deltaforce
Great read after this season. I have been saying for a quite a while that I haven't seen a midfielder like Cesc since Zidane. I remember Skysports piece in 2005 before the community shield where a 17 year old spaniard was chosen to speak before the press. The presenter jokingly introduced the clip by saying "is this the 17 year old who will replace Vieira". 5 years on and we are talking about the most irreplaceable player in the league.
gronedrone
Almunia the 4th-6th best keeper in the league? Hmm. Not sure which criteria you're using. I went over to the Telegraph football ranking site and found this re Almunia: 18th best in saves, 5th best in penalties saved, 11th best in clean sheets and something I found interesting: 3rd best in fouls won (7), with Green (13) and Sorensen (10) being 1st and 2nd. I agree some of the criticism has been OTT but I think it's off the mark to say he's the 4th-6th best in the league. The biggest criteria I'd use is how he organizes his defense and his understanding/communication with them - in that, I don't think he's 4th-6th.
jaelle
jaelle, take the hyphen out and that's Almunia's ranking, 46th !
Cockney Rich
Excellent read. Agree completely with your Diaby appraisal. Also good to see your mostly positive appraisal of Nasri, as he's gotten a lot of stick on other Arsenal blogs for his performances this season.
jaelle
LOL, CR! :-) Poor Manuel, I hate to see him trashed so much. I wouldn't say he's the league's worst keeper, he just doesn't belong in a top 4 club as a first choice keeper.
jaelle
The stats around goalkeepers are always hard to decipher comparison wise. Life for an Arsenal gaolkeeper is different than for, say, a Blackburn goalkeeper. He will have less to do and any small slither of an error will be ripped to shreds and pored over for weeks. I think Almunia's handling has been outstanding- can you remember him dropping many crosses? Though I feel he has too much of a tendency to punch. My criteria for juding Almunia to be between 4-6 should be looked upon I suppose not so much as that he is 4-6 best, but that I can think of 14-16 who are worse and make more basic errors more often.
Little Dutch
My additional point for Almunia would be, despite what some Arsenal fans will tell you, he has hardly been lobbing the ball into his own net and letting backpasses slide under his feet, his errors have been more borderline. Take the Spurs goal, he perhaps shouldn't have punched it, but any first time volley that flies into the top corner has a touch of the remarkable about it and can't be entirely blamed on the goalie. Had Given or Sorensen committed that acton in a game that didn't involve us, we wouldn't have subjected it to any kind of criticism even in our own heads. My biggest worry for Almunia is more that I don't recall too many good saves from him.
Little Dutch
I agree Almunia's errors are not complete howlers unlike Fabianski which is why I'd prefer him to stay out of the two keepers. The ratings are very close to what I'd give for each player so far, good work LD.
bowiecokemirror
Point taken re Almunia LD. My biggest worries with him are his positional sense and his decision making. I think the first leg of the CL game with Barca sums up Almunia completely. An outstanding save one minute, a lack of positional awareness the next. Like most keepers, his errors always seem to result in goals.
Cockney Rich
Would be interesting to see how you approached your rating for Little Denny ;)
MrE._Man
Fair pts, LD re Almunia. I was satisfied with him in the 2 seasons after he took over from Jens and felt he could stay as our #1. It's just this last season that I've changed my mind. Your pt about his personal problems is well taken. On another topic entirely, we are #1 in one premier league table: http://www.premierleague.com/page/FairPlayTable/0,,12306,00.html . Our N. London neighbors come 2nd.
jaelle
Very interesting that jaelle that fair play league. Look at all the dross at the bottom aswell it really does tell a tale doesnt it. The top teams play nice football aswell even Burnley. And look where Liverpool are.
HuddersfieldYiddo
Cesc Fabregas is already my favourite Arsenal player of all-time (granted I have not watched us for so long, but still...) Legend.
Tom14
True, HY. Surprised Stoke aren't lower than they are. Pool's position is surprising, tho I guess all that frustration with their season can result in poor discipline. The one that surprises me most is Sunderland. I don't associate Bruce with poorly disciplined teams, not that poor anyway.
jaelle
Just a small correction : Eduardo had only one assist for Diaby, second one was from Eboue.
Sajit
Very good apraisal. Only thing I would change is Vermalen's rating to a 9. He has been unbelievably immense for us, in his first season no less. That is extremely impressive considering some players need a full season just to get used to playing in the P/L. His age be-lies his footballing ability as well. He plays like a defender who is already in his prime, a bit like Cesc. Diaby would get a 6 for me. Yes he has been decent at times, but far too hit and miss and some of his mistakes have been costly i.e. the mistake at O.T. His awareness on the pitch also leaves a lot to be desired.
True-Gooner-Blood
I also think RVP's rating could have easily been a 9.5 or even a 10 if he had stayed fully fit.
True-Gooner-Blood
the only major contribution from almunia was in the westham game, penalty save , playing with ten men
49ers
Thats a bit harsh 49, he pretty much kept us in the game in the first half of the Barca game at the Emirates...
True-Gooner-Blood
CR is spot on regarding Almunia btw. It just seems that you have a moment of brilliance subsequently blighted by a lapse of concentration with Manuel and it is very frustrating.
True-Gooner-Blood
Vermaelen is a bit suspect. But since hes the new boy, we overlook most of that. Dont expect gooners to be that kind on him next season though. LD's ratings are spot on.
Sajit
" Vermaelen is a bit suspect " - Sajit, put down that crack pipe mate and just say No ! If you don't ease up on the mind bending drugs you'll be posting " RVP is talentless " or " Diaby should play in goal ".
Cockney Rich
Diaby in goal? that could actually work ;)
nikolaijns
CR, http://www.zonalmarking.net/2010/04/09/thomas-vermaelen-arsenal-positional-errors/
Sajit
Sajit, thanks for the link mate,but I haven't bothered with it. All I will say is that imho, for a debut season adapting to a new country,league and team-mates, TV5 has been outstanding. Right from the ' get-go ' at Goodison Park, he has always been assured and determined. He was at his very best with Gallas beside him, and his performances only dropped slightly when partnered with Silvestre. It is clear to see that he has no confidence in the 'keepers behind him, but there are thousands of us like that. When you add his goal tally to his all round game, you can give me TV5 any day of the week. I would say that AW has spent 10m very wisely my friend.
Cockney Rich
I don't disagree with anything said of Diaby. And while most are tired of age being an excuse for performance, Diaby remains a young man and the upside when he hits his peak in a couple of years leaves me salivating.
hughied
Would be a shame to burden TV5 with defensive leadership unless there's no alternative. I don't doubt his leadership skills and knowledge of the game, but he's a young man and still has areas he needs to work on. Gallas as a seasoned veteran was a perfect foil for TV who was able to attack the ball and let Gallas worry about the scraps and barking orders.
hughied
PS - Great articles LD. Thanks.
hughied
Good read and agreed with most of what's said. Whatever Almunia's rating, he isn't quite good enough for Arsenal.
Gooner_Vin
TV5 is in the PFA team of the season so I think that's enough proof he has had an outstanding season. His fellow professionals certainly think so. There are areas of his game that can still improve but he has been a fantastic signing.
bowiecokemirror
 

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